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The full scope of the overall economic decline and hardship facing America is really beyond our mental capacity to adequately grasp. In some ways, the aggregate situation may well be about a thousand times worse than we can imagine it to be!
We are able to understand our own personal situations, but most of us are not even aware that by November of 2009, more than 36 million Americans needed food stamps for basic survival. America is hungry, and today almost 20% of American households fall below the poverty line. We literally can’t imagine this many people, hungry and devoid of resources. The true enormity of it is at least a thousand times worse than we can actually grasp.
There is no way, directly, to imagine the magnitude of $1 trillion or what it could buy (and $1 billion, actually, is pretty much beyond the reach of imagination). There are simply too many zeros. It is possible, however, to begin to appreciate the orders of magnitude of really big quantities of money using a spatial analogy. We provide one we find helpful, and we ask the reader to take a moment, right now, to read How Much Is a Trillion Dollars?.
Representing $1 million as a length of one foot helps us get a better understanding of how much $1 trillion really is, and it becomes is easier to appreciate the full implications of some basic facts. The enormity of America’s annual $1 trillion military budget comes quickly into better focus.
Likewise, we can better appreciate the amount of wealth the Bush tax cuts transferred to the wealthiest 2.5%, which is at or near $1 trillion today and still growing. And the true enormity of the $2.6 trillion “borrowed” from Social Security funds to finance military activities and to pay for the tax cuts for the wealthy elite similarly comes into brighter focus: At a cost of $1 million per foot, that would pay for a trip of 491 miles, like driving from Oklahoma City down to San Antonio, Texas. Or at least we begin to realize how unimaginable it really is. That’s a lot of SS pension checks.
It’s important to understand as best we can the growing inequality in the distribution of wealth and income in America. Looking at a pie chart, it’s hard to grasp what is actually represented: This chart, for example, shows shares of family wealth in 2007. It shows that the top 10% possess about 3/4 of all wealth. That feels awfully top-heavy, but our visual perception leads us toward complacency: Even though we understand that nearly half of the wealth in that top 10% is in the top 1%, looking at a pie with three pretty much symmetrical slices, there is no visual representation of one individual at the top having more wealth than 90 people put together, at the bottom. We come up with an “averaged” perception, and our minds fail to sense something unusual about someone having 100 times as much wealth as someone else. Perhaps we think of Tiger Woods.
But this is misleading, for it’s an incomplete picture. Here’s the same data, with another identified slice of the pie:
Now we see that the bottom one-half of all Americans (represented in a tiny blue slice) have only 2.5% of the wealth. That’s about $1.6 trillion, for some 150 million people, on average $10,000 per person. The top 1% however, according to these figures, possess about $21.2 million per person. So each person in the top 1% has as much wealth as more than 2,100 people in the bottom one-half. Suddenly, the inequality appears much more significant.
And there is enormous inequality within the top 1% as well, a fact at the heart of America’s current crisis: The Forbes 400 have accumulated, on average, about $4.3 billion per person. That’s astronomical wealth, more than 2 orders of magnitude, on average, above the rest of the top 1%!
We’re no longer thinking about Tiger Woods. How did all these people get all this money? Was it earned, through extraordinary talent and industry? Some of them, like Bill Gates, got super rich, initially, with an unusual combination of talent and luck. But that’s not true of all of them.
This is the group of people who have been running our government and our financial system, and using control over the taxing power to amass enormous wealth for themselves. And it is the radical right from within this group that is now engaged in a relentless destruction of the prosperity and freedom of the bottom 99% of Americans and their way of life.
We need to do our best to appreciate how incredibly wealthy these people are.
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